On a recent visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, I was struck by the beauty of the representations of the Stations of the Cross. I always love to see how these 14 moments from Christ’s passion and death are illustrated, whether in painting or sculpture, color or monochrome, inside or outside the church. Here, the images were not mounted on the walls, but built into the walls themselves. The all-white carvings reminded me of how central the Passion is to the Catholic faith. How central, too, ought they to be in my practice of the Faith, especially during Lent.
The saints are excellent teachers in how to pray, and one of the best examples of someone with a particular devotion to the Stations of the Cross is Pope St. John Paul II. He prayed the stations not only every Friday during Lent, but every Friday of his life, right up until the day before he died. No wonder this man was so holy; no wonder he had such a deep and insightful understanding of redemptive suffering and God’s love.
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The Stations of the Cross are meant to help us experience what Christ went through in the Holy Land in the setting of our own parish. A priest friend shared with me that the practice of praying the Stations of the Cross originated with pilgrims going to Jerusalem and visiting the sites of the Passion. There are some Medieval references to the Via Sacra — which we call the Via Dolorosa today — which was walked by pilgrims in Jerusalem. After the Franciscans gained control of the holy sites in the Holy Land in the 13th century, their counterparts in Europe gradually brought over the practice of the stations for people who couldn’t visit Jerusalem. Since then, Catholics have been praying the stations in who knows how many countries for centuries upon centuries!
In a contemporary space, we may take the Stations of the Cross for granted. After all, they are in every Catholic church. If we don’t pay attention, they can blend into the background of our worship. Perhaps your church gathers to pray the stations on Friday evenings during Lent, as mine does. But maybe this time isn’t convenient for you, due to work schedules, other commitments or, as was the case for me for some years, little kid bedtimes.
That doesn’t mean the stations can’t be part of your Lenten practice. The stations are always present in our churches, which means we can be creative about how and when we spend time with them. Here are a few ideas to consider how you might include the Stations of the Cross in your discipline of prayer this year.
Pray a few stations at a time
With a combination of school-aged kids and toddlers, I’ve found that stopping by church on the way home from school on Friday during Lent is our family’s sweet spot. We keep prayer guides in the car all year round (so we don’t lose them between Easter and the next Ash Wednesday!), and we pray four stations at a time. This way, we get through the whole set about twice each year. We typically pray the complete Stations of the Cross as a family on Good Friday, as well, so we do get the full experience at least once each season.
Try visio divina
If there are multiple Catholic churches in your area, visit a different one each week and pray with a variation of visio divina, the practice of praying with art. Pay attention to what the colors, shapes, lines or textures in the piece convey to you. How do different styles allow you to enter more fully into prayer? If this mode of prayer is new to you, you might grab a copy of “Surrender All: An Illuminated Journal Retreat through the Stations of the Cross” by Jen Norton for further guidance.
To pray the stations in a church where Christ is present in the tabernacle is a powerful experience. But to pray outside, especially on a colder or windier day, can put us in mind of Christ’s suffering in a different way. If you choose to pray this way, notice the air you breathe, the steps you take, the color of the sky. Christ’s passion was a physical as well as spiritual event. Use your observations to have a conversation with the Lord.
Gather with friends
As Christians, we are called to community. Invite friends to join you in praying the Stations of the Cross, either just once or as a weekly gathering. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to invite whoever in your life might benefit from time in group prayer; it might be someone you don’t expect. If either you or your friends aren’t familiar with praying the stations on your own, don’t let that be a hindrance. Ask your priest any questions you may have, and learn and grow together. There are plenty of prayer guides available online or in your local Catholic bookstore. Make a plan to celebrate Easter together, too!
Listen while you drive
Some of us respond to auditory input better than visual. If this is you (or if you simply spend a lot of time in the car), find a recording of the stations that you can play in the car. The Hallow app is a good place to start. Remember, you don’t have to do all of the stations on one leg of your journey. In the last days of Lent, as we approach Good Friday, it can be helpful to pray one station per day and then to bring a line from that reflection into the rest of your day.
Step by step, station by station, may you grow in love for Christ this Lent and be ever more receptive to the gift of his overflowing mercy